In most cocoa growing countries, it is rare for the farmers to eat chocolate made with their own beans. The hot temperatures in the tropics where cocoa is grown, combined with the remoteness of many of the cocoa-growing communities, makes it very difficult for chocolate—let alone chocolate made with a farmer’s cocoa—to reach them.
For a long time, I had wanted to make a premium chocolate from cocoa from Ecuador. This can be a difficult endeavor. Historically, Ecuador has produced some of the finest quality cocoa in the world. Unfortunately, over the last 100 years or so, the quality of Ecuador’s cocoa has suffered drastically. The move from artisanal chocolate to industrial chocolate ruled by a few large companies 100 years ago has caused the post-harvest practices in Ecuador to suffer. Farmers got used to sloppy practices that reduced the labor required to produce fine-quality cocoa beans no longer demanded by the mass-market chocolate companies.
Large chocolate companies have planted modern hybrids, most notably a variety called CCN-51, which is incapable of producing fine-quality chocolate. CCN-51 has great productivity but suffers from poor flavor. Additionally, it depletes the soil drastically, leaving farmers with unproductive soil after a few bountiful years.
Ecuador is home to a variety of cocoa called Nacional. Nacional has a deep, rich chocolate flavor but also beautiful fruity (often blackberry) overtones that are unique to cocoa from Ecuador. As a company, we have a policy of not working with CCN-51, which we consider to be a scourge of the chocolate world. So for us to create a chocolate from cocoa from Ecuador, it was important to find a place where we could be sure we would be getting Nacional and not CCN-51.
Working with a team in Ecuador, we were able to find just this. Using a set of farms that were old—very old—about an hour up river from Guayaquil. This area is home to Arriba Nacional. The story is that early cocoa traders would come to the port city of Guayaquil and ask where the best quality cocoa was. They were pointed up river with the phrase “Arriba! Arriba!” (meaning “Up! Up”). Ever since, people have referred to this particularly fine quality cocoa as “Arriba Nactional” or simply “Arriba.”
To ensure that there was no CCN-51 in the cocoa, a program was set up where the beans were not purchased from the farmers but the cocoa pods themselves. Once the beans are taken out of the pod, it is virtually impossible to visually tell the difference between CCN-51 and Nacional. The pods themselves, however, are visually much different and can be readily identified as one variety or another. This took a bit of coordination, since the farmers were used to selling the cocoa “wet” (or fresh out of the pod) and not the pods themselves. The farmers had to feel comfortable with the fact that they’d be selling pods but would be making the same amount of money as the “wet” beans they had been selling.
The flavor of the beans was phenomenal. The finished chocolate was exceptional. All in all, I was very excited about this chocolate. I decided to call it Guayas, after the Guayas River basin where this exceptional cocoa is found. As luck would have it, as the release date neared, I was contacted by friends in Ecuador wanting me to come and visit. Perfect timing!
I gathered a box of our new Guayas chocolate bars and jumped on the next flight to Ecuador. It was late at night when I arrived, and after being met by friends, I made my way to my hotel.
When it was time to head to the farms, we jumped in the car and headed out of town. As we crossed the enormous bridge spanning Guayas River, I could not help but think of the history of cocoa trading ships that had snaked their way up and down the river, visiting the various ports and traveling through the Panama Canal, then across the sea to the world’s greatest chocolate makers in Europe. This area was steeped in cocoa history, and I felt a bit like Marlo in The Heart of Darkness traveling up the river in the Congo toward ever more wild and wondrous adventures.
As we traveled from town to town, the towns became villages, the villages became communities, and the communities became random clusters of houses. We finally reached a lone dirt road that turned off on to the right toward a field that had been recently burned out. The dirt road rose 15-20 feet above the fields on either side. Clearly we were in the Guayas River floodplain, and the raised road snaked its way like a giant python through blackened field after field. Bouncing through the potholes, I watched the blackened remains of what was once crops as we left a smoky trail of billowing dust behind us.
While there was nothing left other than a few black leaves rustling in the wind, it occurred to me that this had been a sugar cane field. The long sword like leaves on sugar cane can be razor sharp, making harvesting a potentially dangerous proposition.
To make harvesting easier, sugar cane fields are routinely burned, which removes the leaves and leaves the juicy stalks behind. There are many a tale of moon-crossed lovers taking a romantic refuge in sugar cane fields for an evening romp, only to be trapped by the flames of the burning fields, their bodies to be discovered only the next day, still clutching each other, a blackened testament to their love.
We eventually came to a small group of houses sitting back from the dirt road. Like many of the houses in this region, these were up on stilts. They sat even with the road, and a network of boards stretched from house to house, and from the random house-to-dirt road upon which we rode. This small group of houses is the small village—if you can call it even that—where our cocoa comes from.
Since it wasn’t quite time for the get-together we had planned with the farmers, we stopped by one of their houses and met with the eldest farmer. Like so many of the wonderful farmers I have met on my travels, he was one of the most kind people I have known. There is something about a farmer’s heart that creates a connection with life that is almost impossible to achieve in any other way. While I do not speak Spanish, his kindness was readily apparent. He had inherited his farm from his father, and his father from his father. With pride in his eyes, he introduced me to his son, who would be taking over the farm and continuing the tradition of cocoa farming out on the Guayas River floodplain.
I asked him what he knew of the disease which some had reported had killed the Nacional that grew in Ecuador. There have been many claims by one group or another that there was no Nacional left, saying it had all died out from disease in the 1920s and had been replaced with various hybrids. I was curious what the response would be from a simple farmer who was old enough to remember, rather than from the academics who argue from their remote polished desks thousands of miles away. As can only be expected from a farmer, the answer was brilliantly simple: “Yes, we lost lots of cocoa but we didn’t lose all the trees. What do you think we replanted with?”
We toured the farm and I asked many questions, of both the father and the son, about their farm and their family history. The trees on this farm were enormous. They were very old, and while their age escapes me at the moment, these were the same trees that had passed from generation to generation, providing cocoa to the father and the father’s father. Unlike many cocoa plantations, these trees had been planted from seed rather than from grafting. When planted from seed (unlike grafting), the trees will grow very tall, which can make harvesting more difficult. (Grafted trees will grow only 10-15 feet tall vs 30-40 feet for trees planted from seed.)
We went back to the farmer’s house and spent time with his family. Their house was surrounded by coconut trees, and it wasn’t long before they found out how I love to drink the coconut water from fresh coconuts. When I used to do landscaping in Hawai’i, this was my drink of choice on a hot tropical day. They quickly scaled a tree and knocked down a few young coconuts. I took a machete and started to open one up, quickly learning how rusty my machete skills had become. After the coconuts were opened, I took a big draft from the nearest. It was very refreshing, especially as some of the water drained down my chin and onto my shirt.
It was time for the party we had planned, so we jumped back in the car and drove just a short way down the road to the end of the row of houses. There everything was ready for our party for the farmers. We had tents all set up with chairs and tables, all in the shade. The whole community was there. The communities children ran in and out among the tables and chairs while the adults kicked back under the shade of the tents, relaxing.
It was a hot and sweltering day, and the shade of the tents beckoned. As I put my things on the nearest table in the shade, there was a whiff of smoke in the air. This wasn’t the smoke of a fire in the fields that we had just passed. This was different. It was the smoke caused by something delicious over a fire. I turned and saw that the hamburger stand which had been ordered was already cooking up burgers and hotdogs for everyone. Yes, there were free hotdogs, hamburgers, and drinks for everybody.
Before things began to take on a life of their own, we gathered everybody together to sit down underneath the tent. My friends spoke to the farmers about what a wonderful thing their cocoa had become and that their cocoa was the key ingredient that made the finished chocolate so special. They continued on and talked to the group about their cocoa and their community. Since the cocoa was purchased in pods and was not “wet,” there were issues a business nature that needed to be discussed as well.
Finally, it was my turn to speak. I talked to them about how their cocoa was and is their heritage. How their cocoa has bound their community together for generations and how that cocoa has traveled the world and been with people during their most joyful times and the times they needed comfort. I talked about the need to protect their farm from contamination from CCN-51 and how planting CCN-51 was abandoning their heritage. I continued about how their cocoa was truly special and how hard it was to find truly great cocoa—and that was what their cocoa was,truly great. Despite being in a community that was far from the nearest city and in a remote part of the world, they had something truly wonderful that was not found elsewhere, and it should be treasured. I talked about how we had named the chocolate “Guayas” as a way to honor their forefathers, the country, and area where the cocoa comes from. I said more than that, but I don’t remember it all.
At the end, though, there was one thing I had to do, which, I believe, spoke volumes; and from the reaction of the people, I believe it meant far more than anything I had to say. I told them that I had brought for them chocolate made with their very own cocoa. I passed out chocolate, giving each person, including the children, a chocolate bar. Everybody was happy. Earlier, I had cut several bars into pieces, so while I handed out bars for everyone to try, everybody got to try a piece of the chocolate they helped create. There were so many people, it was difficult to make sure that everyone got a bar and a piece of chocolate.
One elderly lady, most certainly the town matriarch (whether they wanted her to or not), ruled their community through her the strength of her personality, and she knew it. She seemed particularly taken by the chocolate and was very excited when she ate it. After I finished making the rounds, everybody was told that they could go and get as many hamburgers, hotdogs, and drinks as they wanted. But before I could make my way over to the rapidly growing line (hey, I was hungry too!), this little old woman came to me and demanded “Mas!” which in Spanish means “More”! She then thrust out her gnarled, cupped hand expecting me to give her more, just as she demanded. This was not a request but a clear and simple demand. I knew I was beaten. There was no arguing. I gave her another piece of chocolate.
The smell of the hamburgers was intoxicating. I ended up being in line surrounded with young schoolgirls, who were so happy to be included in the party. The hamburgers were most tasty, nothing like them in the United States. Yes, there was the all-beef-patty and a bun, and they looked normal, but they had chopped onion for their only topping, along with some sort of sauce that I’d never had before. The flavor was indescribable, and I quickly found myself returning again and again, along with everybody else, until all the hamburgers were gone.
It was not long before I was again confronted by the community matriarch, and just like last time, she stomped in my direction, thrust her gnarled, cupped hand in my face, and demanded “Mas!” (“More!”). I gave her more chocolate, and again, she walked away satisfied.
I had a sneaking suspicion that this was not the last time I would be confronted by this woman, and I was not to be disappointed. She came back at least three more times before the party officially ended.
Once the hamburgers and hotdogs were gone, it signaled to many people that the end of the party was near. Some people drifted off. Some of the farmers stayed to talk business.
All in all, the party that launched our Guayas chocolate was a roaring success. It was not without its problems, however. There was supposed to be a band to play during the party. They apparently became lost on the way and never showed.
Despite the small hiccup of the band now showing, the party brought much happiness to the community. The smiles of the farmers and on the faces of the children made the entire trip and all the planning worth it. I was particularly pleased that the farmers were able to try chocolate made from their beans before the finished chocolate was delivered to our retailers or our customers. I’ve always believed that the farmers should come first, and this was a wonderful way to show it.
I hoped on that day that it could be a precedent for our future chocolate bars—being able to deliver the chocolate to the farmers before our customers or retailers. So far, I haven’t been able to repeat this feat. All in all, it was a series of miracles, all coming together, that allowed the timing of finished chocolate, my flight, the shortnotice scheduling of the party, to be just right. It is my hope that as time goes by, I can repeat this event and have the timing of the packaging, chocolate, and all the whirlwind of events. required to bring everybody together to launch a new chocolate all come together, so the farmers can once again be first to sample chocolate made with their very own cocoa.